Archive for February 2008

Where Have You Been?

February 26, 2008

Let’s see..

What Becomes You is newly out in paperback, with a reader’s guide, in print until the fall of civilization from Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press. And yes, you can afford it! So can your students! Woo hoo!

So, I’ve been on tour. The book now has a one-man show to go with it, and an interactive public exhibit called Family. So…where have I been?

Hang on to your hats. Lincoln, Nebraska, Portland, Oregon, New York City, Washington D.C., and now Tampa, Florida, where the first sight that struck my eyes as I blearily opened the door of my hotel room was a giant pink plastic pirate ship. Lest you think I jest…

view from my hotel room

Tampa resembles Los Angeles in its point of view, meaning that what you see is entirely a function of where you’re standing. Standing in the courtyard of the hotel, I see gulf fritillaries glide over scarlet flowers, flashing silver-spotted wings in the sunshine. The pool gleams turquoise in a setting of chocolate-and-lapis Moorish filagree. As I stretch out my borrowed chaise-lounge, sunlight gently grazes my bare toes, while my computer screen is shaded by the helpful leaves of banana trees. Fountains cascade delicately over streams of lava rock (on the children’s side, cleverly hidden from my view, the water sheets from a gigantic plastic Amanita mushroom, its white-spotted red cap faded to the same delicate pink as the pirate ship). The only discordant notes in this 1940’s paradise are the persistent strains of pseudo-Jimmy Buffet drifting from the gazebo.

A monarch butterfly–which has probably flown five hundred miles to get here–arrives, drifting slowly across the scene like an exhausted New York City garment worker. It circles–the chaise lounge, the pool, my feet, the sun umbrella. After a long moment, it settles into a bed of sun-colored lantana, drinking deeply.

The gazebo is playing “Saint Thomas Way.”

Outside, and endless stream of cars screech across crosswalks designed for bodies much larger than mine–polycarbonate, fiberglass, plastic, aluminum-steel bodies. They smoke invisibly, heat rising in violent shimmers across the acres of asphalt that divide me from the road, divide the road from the strip-mall, each strip-mall chain store from the next. Auto parts, fried chicken, bar, housewares, tires, bar-restaurante, auto repair, bar and grille, groceries, bar and b-q, gasoline, mojito bar, auto parts, bar. Everything outside the hotel except the doors is designed for people twelve feet long and six feet wide. They walk at forty miles an hour. Made of flesh and moving rather more slowly, it takes me twenty minutes to reach the shops across the street. Hidden in their shadow I discover a Vietnamese family cooking behind a plastic mini-mall marquee.

I eat broken rice.

Good Vietnamese cooks understand how to create, apparently from nothing, a delicate and pungent sauce which turns this into comfort food. The American shop next door offers package liquor.

I’ve come to Tampa at the invitation of a group of small South Florida colleges and universities. Since I’ve been burned before at Ivy League universities by crowds of distinguished academics with torches, and the rubric is Women’s and Gender Studies, I am wary.

Instead, for a few blissful hours, I am fed possibly Southern comfort food (a variety of tasty, nourishing, and entirely unrelated things all called “salad”) and large quantities of chocolate (Food Good!). I am welcomed by the most extraordinary diverse group of people I’ve ever seen (except perhaps in a homeless shelter). A smiling and fiercely efficient woman swaps old zoo employee stories and plies me with ice water and fresh coffee (Drink Good!)

An economist and a professor of Film Studies talk about the importance of revealing your point of view. Later, I get into a conversation about crossing cultural barriers with two attendees, Ugandan and Moroccan. People talk with me about science writing, memoir, feminism, manhood, womanhood, aging, teaching, communication, and representation–men, women, and people whose gender I do not know, gay men, lesbians, straight women, and people whose sexual orientations I do not know, African-Americans, Africans, Europeans, Euro-Americans, Caribbean-Americans, Latin-Americans, and with people whose races and national identities I do not know. I spend time in rooms in which I am not the only out gay man, the only man, or the only transperson, in rooms where I am neither the youngest nor the oldest person to talk about age and generation, the most nor the least “white” person to talk about color and race. I detect no torches. No one argues over whose oppression wins the high score, who has a right to exist, or whether my existence is a bad thing. (Friend Good!)

The teachers come from many of the arts and social sciences; they work hard to offer their students chances to experience being in authority and what it’s like to be both respected and challenged. People are curious, respectful, questioning, fierce, and kind.

As I read and speak, the astonishing thing happens: in faces of every age, sex, color, shape, and size, I recognize tiny, half-involuntary gestures–nods, eyes flickering closed or wide open–of recognition. As I listen to others both before and afterward, I feel it happening to me.

Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello.

Everyone at this tiny conference comes from schools with minor reputations and limited budgets. My faith in higher education is restored, and once again I conclude that most of what we are told about the world has been run through a reversing mirror before it gets to us.